Blue Jays adding Bass reflects team’s approach to building bullpens

Toronto Blue Jays relief pitcher Anthony Bass delivers during the ninth inning of a baseball game against the Washington Nationals. (Nick Wass/AP)

TORONTO – On Oct. 29, in the hours before Game 6 of the 2019 World Series, the Toronto Blue Jays claimed Anthony Bass on waivers, the type of move that occurs routinely every off-season, and gains little notice beyond a transaction-line mention.

Typically, what happens is a team sees a name pop up on the wire, they do some work on how the player might contribute and fit the roster puzzle – maybe someone in the organization has a hunch or is enamoured by the talent – and then decide yea or nay.

If it’s a successful yea, a waiver add carries no risk and is easily undone, which is how righty Oliver Drake went from Milwaukee to Cleveland to the Angels to Toronto to Minnesota to Tampa Bay to Toronto and back to the Rays from May 2018-January 2019, a span of 10 months.

The Blue Jays, however, had firmer plans for Bass when they claimed him from the Seattle Mariners, envisioning him as more than a just a waiver-wire flier. His addition – along with those of Rafael Dolis, A.J. Cole and Shun Yamaguchi – is also reflective of the club’s recent approach to bullpen construction, a trend that bears watching moving forward.

Bass quietly put together a solid ’19, striking out 43 against 17 walks over 48 innings, with five saves in 44 outings. His slider generated a 37.3 whiff percentage, which in combination with a sinker that averaged 95.3 m.p.h., screamed leverage-inning profile. And with an economical arbitration projection – the right-hander signed for $1.5 million ahead of the Dec. 3 tender deadline – he was a much safer bet for a value return than a free agent.

“I was definitely surprised when I got the news. I was confused. I had a good season and for them to just part ways with me left me a little bitter,” Bass says of his parting with the Mariners. “But at the same time, I was happy that the Blue Jays jumped right all over me. Spoke to Ross (Atkins, the GM) right away and he was very welcoming and very happy to have me. So my focus immediately went to winning for the Blue Jays and in Seattle was in the past.”

With Bass now filling in for the injured Ken Giles (forearm strain) as closer, his claim could turn out to be a particularly important off-season move for the Blue Jays. In just four innings of work, he’s already returned 0.3 WAR per Baseball-Reference, and while his 0.231 WHIP won’t last, he’s shown the mettle and repertoire necessary for the role.

Giles is to be re-evaluated in two weeks, making an early September return an ambitious best-case scenario, so Bass will get some extended run in the interim, an opportunity that times nicely with his looming free agency.

In that sense, both he and Giles face uncertain futures, as the Blue Jays under president and CEO Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins haven’t spent aggressively on relievers since taking over after the 2015 season.

Aside from the Jan. 8, 2016 trade that brought in Drew Storen and his $8.375 million hit from Washington for outfielder Ben Revere, the Blue Jays haven’t come close to the $9.6 million salary (all salaries before pro-ration) given to Giles in his final year of arbitration eligibility.

Instead, the Blue Jays have generally worked with arms from within the organization and made several clever low-risk, bounce-back candidate free-agent signings, eventually turning Joe Smith, Seunghwan Oh, John Axford, Daniel Hudson and David Phelps into future pieces. Dominic Leone was another smart waiver-wire add, and helped land Randal Grichuk.

By comparison, this winter’s signing of Japanese right-hander Shun Yamaguchi to a $6.35-million, two-year deal was a relative splurge, although it also fit into a larger plan to establish a foothold in the Asian market.

Rafael Dolis, also lured from Japan, is the only other seven-figure arm in the Blue Jays bullpen, signing for $1 million with a $1.5 million club option for next year. Right-hander A.J. Cole, who joined the team on a minor-league deal, is making $600,000 in the majors, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, while all of the club’s other relief arms are making either the big-league minimum of $563,500, or a nominal sum above it.

The bulk of the club’s money this off-season was spent on the rotation – ace lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu ($80 million, four years), Tanner Roark ($24 million, two years), Chase Anderson ($8.5 million with a $9.5 million option or $1.5 million buyout for 2021) and Matt Shoemaker ($4.2 million, one year) – and on veteran utility man Joe Panik ($2.85 million).

That could be a template for the upcoming off-seasons as well, where the Blue Jays target their money toward more primary roster needs, while seeking to primarily build their bullpen from within the system and through value-play additions.

Taking such an approach is a good way to mitigate risk, as well.

Three off-seasons ago, for instance, the Colorado Rockies splashily remade their bullpen through free agency, signing closer Wade Davis to a $52-million, three-year deal, and set-up men Jake McGee and Bryan Shaw to identical $27-million, three-year contracts.

Two weeks ago, they released both McGee and Davis, receiving a cumulative minus-0.6 WAR as calculated by Baseball-Reference from each over the past two years. Davis is at minus-1.0 after a 43-save season in 2018.

All of which makes Dolis and Jordan Romano especially important, as they both are under club control and could be the ninth-inning guy of the near future. Dolis collected 96 saves over the past four years in Japan giving him the pedigree, while Romano’s dominant start to the season with four hitless innings and six strikeouts suggests all sorts of promise.

“I do want to be a high-leverage guy, if that’s fifth on through ninth, I like pitching with guys on base, when the game’s on the line,” says Romano. “Ultimately down the road, I want to prove myself and I do want to be a closer in the future, that’s one of my goals. Right now, wherever they need to be, I’ll pitch.”

For now, though, the Blue Jays have Bass, serving as a bridge back to Giles, and perhaps pitching himself elsewhere, too, as he travels the rarely available path from waiver-wire pickup to closer.

“I try not to put too much emphasis on pitching the ninth, eighth, seventh, sixth, whatever it is,” says Bass. “I know my job is I got to put a zero up on the board. I got to not allow anyone to score. And I know that happens, but I’m trying to limit the damage as my focus, put us in a position to win a ballgame.”

Pretty good return for a waiver-wire pickup.

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